Don’t Even Try to Put TiaCorine Into a Box

Running around New York City with the charmingly offbeat North Carolina rapper as she navigates the hectic life of an almost-famous artist.

TiaCorine can see the end of a near two-week grind that had her ricocheting from her spot in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to New York City to schmoozing in L.A. during Grammys week, and now here in Manhattan again for live performances, meetings, and appointments with popular designers amid the February edition of Fashion Week. Her flight back home is only eight hours away, but judging from the weary look on her face as she hops out of an Uber in Soho on this late Monday morning, you would think her watch was ticking backwards. 

She speedwalks to a coffee shop to meet with the stylist for today’s photoshoot. The 29-year-old rapper is then tasked to change out of her Carhartt coat and casual denim and into a lime-green knit outfit. The café’s confused staff points her to the bathroom. After a couple of minutes she reappears, less frantic than before, like she had a pep talk with a yoga guru while turning the toilet into a fitting room, and says to me, “Sorry, my life is crazy right now.”

Much of this insanity—the whooshing, sometimes-undignified rush of what could be rap stardom—is due to Tia’s forceful breakout single “Freaky T,” one of the best rap songs of last year. The flamethrowing homage to Memphis hip-hop underlines her audacious style: expressive, high-energy, hypnotic. Its trippy video, meanwhile, helps explain why she was so in-demand during Fashion Week—in pink leather, sparkly acrylics, and a beauty queen’s blond wig, with her braces as blinding as the Kirby chain around her neck, TiaCorine knows how to stand out.

The song’s accompanying album, I Can’t Wait, is a mission statement that’s both urgent and eclectic, flitting from style to style, with offbeat references to celebrities, Nintendo characters, and her beloved anime peppered in. On “Paris Hilton,” her voice is almost as deep as GloRilla’s over the breezy beat, where she flips on a dime from a sharp triplet flow to whispers. “Birds” is a cutesy pop song. “Boogie” harkens back to the Neptunes’ heyday. “Find Yours” could be a SZA outtake. “Rockstar” tosses off some Auto-Tuned ska. “Dipset” is all chest puffing. “Chaka Khan” is dancey and hard and funny too: “Ain’t got no dick, I’m cranky/Bitch I’m too cold, ride around with a blankie.” Talking about the album’s stylistic swerves, she says, “The goal is to show people not to put me in a box. I’m Tia. One of one.” 

So now she’s being tugged all over New York City like a taxi driver at rush hour. When we meet, she’s fielding invites to sit next to the celebrity class at runway shows, while local fashion influencers are calling to do #content, and an agent wants her to delay her flight home so she can sit courtside at the Knicks game. She says no to it all. Instead, she’s moseying around Chinatown, eating a mammoth bowl of noodles, and talking about her latest anime watch (the psychological thriller Monster) until it’s time to return to her daughter, two dogs, and bed in North Carolina. “I’m too country for this concrete jungle life,” she says, right before striking a dutiful pose for a random street photographer across the street. 

Born Tia Shultz, she was surrounded by trees, open fields, and dirt bikes during her upbringing near Winston-Salem’s city limits. Her father is Black and Japanese, and her mother is Shoshone; her face lights up when remembering her family’s annual trips to celebrate Indigenous American culture. 

Music was in the air at home, from A Tribe Called Quest to Shania Twain. At one point her favorite rapper was Lil Wayne, then Wiz Khalifa. Through college at Winston Salem-State University, she tried to rap on and off, between getting her degree in exercise physiology and then raising her daughter. It wasn’t until she was around 24 that she began to find her sound. 

In 2018, her lush and bright composite of Southern rap was jump started when her single “Lotto” went viral in the early days of TikTok, before the platform was turned into a breeding ground of musical desperation. The song is buoyed by the kind of lightweight, singsongy flow that you could hum along to even if you don’t know the words, and even Drake eventually borrowed (and butchered) it for his hit “Popstar.” Her sun-kissed debut mixtape 34 Corine and its deluxe edition followed, doubling down on her airy sound, but with a more realized sense of humor. “Pussy look like Krillin no cappin’,” she sang on “34 Villain,” referencing the chrome-domed Dragon Ball Z cutup, between samples of dialogue from movies like Snakes on a Plane and Rush Hour.

After that initial viral moment, Tia began to stack up songs that paired her ear for astral beats with vocal experiments that squeeze and stretch her voice like neon taffy. “I sometimes go through six different flows before I choose one,” she says. 

A few weeks later on Zoom, Tia is sprawled out on her bedroom floor, surrounded by laundry bags and piles of hoodies plump enough to cushion a high fall. She’s preparing to head out on her first full tour, more than 30 dates opening for Memphis star Key Glock, who called her personally to extend the invite. “I hope they don’t boo me,” she says, as she checks her laptop and runs through a checklist that includes everything from a bonnet to a humidifier. 

She takes the camera into her all-pink studio, straight out of Barbie’s Dreamhouse. There’s a Kirby rug. Sailor Moon figurines. There’s even recording gear the color of cotton candy. This is where she figures out how to attack each beat, cycling through voices and rhythms, sometimes as her daughter sits quietly on a beanbag, playing with her iPad.

While Tia is out on the road, her mother will temporarily move in and hold down the house. One day, Tia wants to buy a bigger home in the Winston-Salem area, so her mom could live there permanently and potentially smooth out her increasingly hectic schedule. In the meantime she’s just focused on her show and releasing a string of new singles, along with a “Freaky T” remix featuring the Atlanta rapper Latto. Even in a fast-moving frenzy, she remains bubbly. When I ask if she’s exhausted, she looks at the camera and shrugs: “I’ve been on my grind.”